No Human is Illegal: Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks, as many Americans have since the President’s EO barring immigrants from certain countries and all refugees. I think part of the fear people have about immigrants is that they don’t know any personally.

Having spent my career as a Social Worker I have come to know many immigrant families. In the coming days I hope to share a number of stories of some of the immigrants I have come to know in my work as a pediatric medical social worker.

First, meet Leticia, Jose, & their son, Roberto:

Having worked in various top-ranked pediatric hospitals, I have had the privilege of helping to care for and support many, many families who were here illegally, who had very sick children, who worked hard in “our” Country and who just wanted to see their children thrive in a way they had never been able to.

Jose and Leticia were two of those people (names have been changed for their protection). They first traveled to the US when they were pregnant. They lived in Honduras, and met when they were barely adults. They got pregnant, and because of violence and fear for their lives they decided to travel to the United States to give their baby a better life. The details they shared with me of that journey were terrifying. But they made it here, only to learn soon after arrival that sometime during that journey their baby had died. Leticia had miscarried. They were devastated. And they felt guilty. They felt the arduous journey had killed their baby. They believed it was their fault.

But they stayed. Jose got a job as a cook and Leticia worked cleaning the homes of some extremely wealthy people in Washington. They were able to pay for a small apartment themselves and were proud of the life they were creating here.

They got pregnant again. They were overjoyed. But that joy soon turned to fear. I met them shortly after their 20 week ultrasound when they learned that their baby boy, whom they would name Roberto, would be born with a complex heart condition.

But Roberto was born and immediately transferred to the hospital where I worked. He received impeccable care (by the medical team and his parents) and had surgery a few days after birth. He did well and began to thrive. He grew chubby and playful and his parents adored him. His dad kept his job as a cook. His mom continued to clean the homes of her clients. You see, her clients liked her so much and thought she did such a good job that they let her come very early in the morning and late at night to clean their houses so that either she or Jose was ALWAYS with Roberto.

Roberto was a beautiful boy. He was playful and outgoing. And his parents, despite speaking very little English themselves, were trying to teach him English so he wouldn’t struggle the way they did. Whenever Roberto came for check ups in the Cardiology clinic his parents would ask for “Trabajadora Christina.” (Social Worker Kristen). They just wanted to say hi and show me how well Roberto was doing. I remember Roberto’s giggles and his cheerful, “¡Hola!” It was always a joy to see them. They tolerated my mediocre Spanish and wanted to help me improve. They corrected me when I spoke incorrectly. They asked me to do the same for their English. They were so proud of the beautiful boy they were raising. And they were so grateful to be doing it in the United States.

When Roberto was about 18 months he came in for what should have been a fairly benign procedure but there were complications and Roberto ended up in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. He was not doing well. He was very sick. I still remember what room they were in. I still remember the look of anguish on his parents’ faces. I remember standing with them at his bedside as they sobbed and tears streamed down my own face. Roberto remained in the CICU for 10 days with no improvement. The decision was made to withdraw support.

As Roberto died in his parents’ arms I will never forget the sound of the wail his mother made as he took his last breath. Usually I left these moments for the families to have in private. But Leticia and Jose had asked that I stay in the room. They said I knew Roberto better than anyone besides them. They wanted his “family” with them.

After Roberto died I helped find funds so that they could burry their son. Their cultural traditions did not support cremation. We discussed this option though because of the very real possibility that one day they could be forced to leave the US. But they said “This is Roberto’s home. He should stay here even if we can’t.”

I called Roberto’s parents every month to check on them. They would visit the hospital just to visit me…one of the few people who knew their son.

About two years after Roberto died I left my job when I had my own son. The fact that as a result I was unable to keep in touch with these families (hospital policy didn’t allow me to do so) is one of the greatest regrets I have about leaving my job.

I have thought a lot about Roberto, Leticia, and José and many others in recent months. I wonder if they are still here. I wonder if Leticia and José were forced by fear to leave behind Roberto. If they haven’t yet, will they?

Leticia and José may have been “illegal” by many standards. But to me, they were amazing. They were exceptional parents, hardworking, and determined. They were people who contributed to “our” country in valuable ways. They just wanted a decent life and they had that here. And why shouldn’t they be allowed to continue to have that?

When you contemplate whether “illegals” should be allowed to stay please think about Leticia and José and Roberto. And remember that they are not illegals. They are human beings with less luck than we have (as it is just luck that has made it so we were born here) but for more grit, determination, and love for this Country than most of us will ever have.

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